- The Washington Times - Friday, June 6, 2003

War Emblem fell out of the starting gate. Spectacular Bid’s Triple Crown hopes were unhinged by a safety pin. Real Quiet fell a nose short.

Bad rides, injuries, photo finishes and pure bad luck have derailed eight straight Triple Crown hopefuls.

Funny Cide’s bid to become thoroughbred racing’s first Triple Crown champion in 25 years and 12th overall must overcome fate as much as several talented rivals. Tomorrow’s 135th Belmont Stakes is known as the “Test of Champions” because the 1-mile race is the pass/fail gateway to greatness.

Sweeping the three spring classics creates legends. Falling one leg short means becoming a trivia question. The 11 who did it include a couple surprises but never a fraud. Those who endured always proved worthy.

“The Triple Crown is not meant to be easy in the first place,” said Secretariat jockey Ron Turcotte. “That’s why we only have 11 of them.”

The current drought since Affirmed’s sweep in 1978 is racing’s longest since Sir Barton’s initial 1919 Triple Crown, which wasn’t recognized for nearly two decades until subsequent triples by Gallant Fox (1930) and Omaha (1935) forced racing to create the term. Secretariat joined the illustrious group with a stirring 31-length Belmont victory in 1973.

Sweeping the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont within five weeks over three distances at three tracks has become the benchmark of greatness among 3-year-olds. Sixteen have failed to sweep after winning the first two legs, including eight since 1979. Funny Cide is the fifth Crown seeker in seven years.

Some trainers argue that the challenge is too taxing for modern horses, whose bloodlines have sacrificed durability for speed. D. Wayne Lukas wants shorter distances and more time between the races after failing with Charismatic (1999). However, Bob Baffert would change nothing despite missing in three attempts since 1997. He joins many traditionalists in believing that any alterations would cheapen the accomplishment.

Affirmed jockey Steve Cauthen disputed claims that the Triple Crown was too easy in 1978 after the colt became the third winner in six years.

“After Affirmed won the Triple Crown, I certainly heard some people saying they are going to have to make it tougher,” he said recently. “Obviously, that’s way off base, which has been proven now. Race at three different tracks, three different distances, the traveling, just getting them out of their regular routine … is a great question to ask of any horse. History tells you that it’s a very, very difficult thing to pull off. You need a great horse and good racing luck all the way through. You can’t have any setbacks in training or any of those little things.”

Spectacular Bid’s 1979 miss was perhaps the most shocking because he was a 3-10 favorite. The colt was third, only a neck back of second, but 3lengths behind second-choice Coastal’s victory. Trainer Bud Delp later claimed the colt stepped on a safety pin that morning and should have been withdrawn, but the possibility of becoming the third Triple Crown champion in three years overwhelmed his reluctance. Delp, who will enter the Hall of Fame in August, still believes Spectacular Bid trailed only Secretariat and Citation among racing’s elite.

Others claim jockey Ronnie Franklin’s poor ride was the difference. Franklin’s career would soon spiral downward because of drug problems that eventually drove him from racing.

“If [Willie] Shoemaker had been on him in the Belmont, Spectacular Bid would have won the Triple Crown,” Delp said. “I should have scratched him. He never changed leads. He always changed leads like a piston.”

Franklin wasn’t the only rider to blow it. Three others also might be blamed.

The worst moment of jockey Chris McCarron’s Hall of Fame career may have come on the final turn of the 1987 Belmont. McCarron was brilliant while overcoming traffic troubles in the Derby and Preakness, but Alysheba was caught outside on the Belmont turn after waiting too long to move and was blocked in a seventh-place finish.

Jockey Gary Stevens never saw his 1997 undoing when Touch Gold swooped past Silver Charm in the final yards to win by three-fourths of a length. Stevens will probably reach the Hall of Fame, but he didn’t keep his eye on the late-running nemesis whose fourth-place Preakness finish impressed bettors enough to make Touch Gold the 5-2 second-choice. Stevens was caught napping in the stretch.

“If Silver Charm had been able to see Touch Gold, I think he would have been able to beat him,” Stevens said. “I had a lump in my stomach that we were going to win the Triple Crown, but then, out of the corner of my eye, I caught a shadow.”

Jockey Kent Desormeaux conceded moving a little too soon aboard Real Quiet in 1998, which proved the difference in the nose loss to Derby and Preakness runner-up Victory Gallop. The seemingly endless Belmont stretch is one of the nation’s longest, and adrenalin makes some jockeys impatient enough to push their colts prematurely. Real Quiet gained a four-length lead but left enough room to the wire for Victory Gallop to make a late run. Desormeaux cocked Real Quiet’s head outside to see charging Victory Gallop, hoping his colt’s competitiveness would repel the challenger. Instead, it was a photo finish loss.

Some defeats weren’t the fault of riders. Charismatic jockey Chris Antley saved the life of Secretariat’s great-grandson by pulling up the colt shortly after finishing third. Charismatic broke his leg approaching the finish line, and the injury would have been fatal if he had been allowed to coast to a stop. Tragically, Antley died of a drug overdose 18 months later.

Sunday Silence simply couldn’t beat the hometown hero in his 1987 bid. Easy Goer was 10-0 in New York and dusted the California rival by eight lengths in the Belmont after finishing second in the Derby and Preakness.

War Emblem never had a chance after stumbling from the gate last year. Jockey Victor Espinoza was nearly unseated when War Emblem’s head hit the dirt. His eighth-place finish was the worst by any Triple Crown seeker.

Sometimes, poor timing denied a contender. Alydar was second to Affirmed in all three 1978 classics. Alydar beat Affirmed in three of 10 meetings, including their subsequent race on a disqualification and probably would have won the Triple Crown in a different year.

“I was never confident whenever we raced against Alydar,” Cauthen said. “It’s tough enough to get one great horse in a year. That year there was two. And I think it was the perfect thing for racing at that time. It threw a lot of new people into the game.”



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